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Cougar’s Victim Attends Trial; Biologist Says He Urged Warnings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Laura Small, the girl mauled by a mountain lion at Caspers Wilderness Park five years ago, made her first appearance in court Tuesday, a day in which a state wildlife biologist testified that county rangers should have warned the public about cougars roaming the grounds before the attack.

The 10-year-old, who is the subject of a lawsuit against Orange County, sat between her mother and father in a Superior Court room and watched as various witnesses testified about the events that led to the attack, which left her blinded in one eye, partially paralyzed and physically and emotionally scarred.

Her attorney and parents said her presence in Department 22 was an attempt to get her comfortable with the courtroom for when she takes the stand next week and testifies about what happened to her on March 23, 1986.

Wylie A. Aitken, the family’s lawyer, contends that Laura’s mauling was the result of negligence by county officials who knew well before the attack that there was a danger of mountain lions in the park.

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County officials, however, have denied any wrongdoing. The defense attorney, Barry L. Allen, has said that nobody knew how dangerous mountain lions were because none had ever attacked a human in Southern California. He said the general belief at the time was that mountain lions were shy, secretive and “had a healthy aversion to humans.”

But the county’s defense appeared to sustain a blow Tuesday with the testimony of Carl Wilcox, a wildlife biologist for the state’s Department of Fish and Game.

Wilcox testified that just two weeks before Laura’s attack, a county ranger telephoned him and detailed several “unusual” mountain lion sightings at the park, in which a large cat had boldly approached hikers.

After hearing of the encounters, Wilcox said, he recommended to the ranger that steps be taken to “warn park visitors and discourage human-lion contact.” He also said he suggested that the lion be captured if it was spotted again.

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Under cross-examination by Allen, however, Wilcox recalled that at the time of the conversation, he thought that even though the actions of the mountain lion were “unusual,” they “did not sound threatening.”

Nonetheless, he testified, the cougars’ behavior was odd enough to justify concern for the safety of park visitors.

Also on Tuesday, the senior ranger at Caspers Park took the witness stand for a second time and testified that although he discussed posting warning signs with supervisors in the days before Laura was attacked, he said he felt that he did not have the authority to implement such actions.

Ranger Bruce Buchman said that the actual “verbiage” of the signs was something that had to be decided by his supervisors and possibly even the county’s lawyers.

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The trial is expected to resume today.


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